Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Misusing History, Max Boot Style

Last Wednesday Jason Sigger at Armchair Generalist took Max Boot to task for his argument that decreasing American armed forces was directly correlated to foreign aggression, so we have to maintain or grow the military to maintain peace and stability despite the increasing cost and outsized effect on the Federal budget.  As Jason points out, Boot ignores all of the social, economic, and cultural factors related to war.  Of course, that's as far as he goes.

Boot's argument is actually worse that Jason makes out. Taking every major conflict the United States fought in turn, Boot argues that merely maintaining a large standing military would have prevented or reduced all those wars, and provides numbers to prove his point.  The problem is that he does so by completely ignoring the context in which those conflicts occurred, and goes off the rails almost immediately.

In his theory, Boot contends that if only the young American republic had kept the standing army at 35,000 men instead of reducing it to a paltry 10,000, the Whiskey Rebellion, War of 1812, Quasi War, and conflict with the Barbary pirates would have all been avoided.  Of course, this requires us to ignore the Founding Fathers' fundamental ideology against standing armies and the ideology of the Revolution arguing that it was both the right and duty of citizens to resort to arms to defend against oppression.  It also assumes that keeping soldiers would have been effective against Great Britain, or would have somehow translated into strength at sea (against Great Britain, France, and Barbary).

The Civil War gets similar, if even less nuanced treatment.  Arguing that 50,000 troops were too few to effectively enforce Reconstruction in the defeated Confederacy, Boot ignores that fact that many in the North simply did not have the political will or interest to radically redraw the political and social order of the South over the long term.  Northerners also had no interest in paying the taxes needed to support large bodies of troops - one of the debates featured in the 1876 Presidential election was over the Federal budget and cost of maintaining a large standing Army.  If Boot thinks that large bodies of Union troops could have forced permanent social, economic, and political change in just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, he is sadly mistaken.  Fighting the pro-Confederate insurgency would have required a permanent Federal presence lasting generations.

Despite all of this, Boot's argument runs into its biggest problems when he addresses the 20th century.  Boot has completely taken leave of his senses if he truly believes that Woodrow Wilson, who could barely drag his nation to war by relying on the Zimmerman Telegram, sinking of the Lusitania, and the Creel Commission, and could not get a Republican Senate to join the League of Nations at the end of the war, could have persuaded them to maintain a force much larger than the 250,000 man force that still existed in 1928.  When arguing that American forces in France or Poland would have somehow deterred Hitler in 1939, Boot conveniently ignores American isolationism in the interwar period and the hoops FDR had to jump through to provide aid to England with the Lend-Lease Acts of the 1930s, which were a response to the cost of America's involvement in World War I.

The fact of the matter is that the size of our Armed Forces is not the only factor leading to these conflicts or how quickly or easily they were ended.  We do need to have a national conversation about the size military we need, and what we need to use it for, what the threats we face are, and how to pay for it all.  But, in having this conversation, we should not be distracted by false assertions and emotional arguments about the past.  Hard as it is to do, we need to examine this complex and serious issue as rational and responsible citizens.  That means accepting that the world is a complicated place, and that mere numbers of troops won't solely determine whether we are secure, or not.

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